I finally worked my way through the two volumes of Philip Hensher’s The Penguin Book of the British Short Story.

Time for the carping to begin then. Of course, Philip Hensher is completely at liberty to pick whichever stories he wants in his anthology, and I really salute him for putting together an interesting and engaging selection, not to mention a series of brief biographical notes that are as entertaining – more so in several cases – than some of the stories.

I confess I baulked at a few of them. The Kipling I ploughed through, but found hard going. One or two others I just couldn’t make it to the end of. I missed H.E.Bates. Though I have an axe to grind against him for his slighting of Coppard, it doesn’t blind me to the fact that he was a great writer of short stories, and a thoughtful one, and a knowledgeable one as well. Hensher tells us why he was left out – the editor’s ‘growing dread’ of his stories. More to the point he was a writer of great short stories.

For me, The Little Farm, is one of the best stories written by any English short story writer I have come across, with The Mill, and The Station not far behind.

But one of the points worth making, having read a collection like this one, is that the stories that do and don’t appeal to us are as much to do with where we are, and where we’ve come from, and where we think we’re going (as opposed, perhaps to where we actually are going) as to do with the way they have been written. Short stories aren’t some monolith that we can walk around, and define the edges of and rap our knuckles against: they are not set in stone, but in our own perceptions and awarenesses, a nebulous cloud meeting the equally nebulous cloud of the author’s insights and communicative abilities. We might read the same words as each other, but I doubt we hear the same voices, or feel the same emotional buttons being pressed.

That’s why the only real carp I have – apart from a couple of goldfish that the cat has left for the heron – is not with Hensher, who has done his thing commendably, but with Penguin, who have both limited the two volumes, and aggrandized them, and cleverly so, by the use of two words, or rather, of a single word, twice.

The Penguin Book of’ makes it not one among many, as ‘A Penguin book’ would have suggested – leaving the door open for some alternative anthologies. ‘The British Short Story’, is too grand a claim. This is ‘A’ book of ‘Some’ short stories, the majority of which have some connection, however obviously tenuous, with what some people think of as Britain.

It would be interesting to know, how many of the authors included would think of themselves as British, and be happy to be categorised in that way. It would be interesting to know how many of them would be thought of as British by others (others who do, and don’t think of themselves as British included). It would also be interesting to know what it is about the stories, as opposed to the authors, that encapsulates some Britishness.

I’ve been interested in trying to find what Lessing called ‘the steadily flowing stream in English writing,’ but it’s hard to tell it apart from other clear, flowing waters. Hensher pays some attention to these conundrums, and comes up with the same sort of flummoxed uncertainties in the case of British, I think, that most of us are prone to. Maybe Penguin could have done away, not only with its ‘the’s, but with the Britishness too…and just have produced a book of ‘stories that somebody we asked to edit it thinks are good.’ He could still have tagged them to Britishness – holidays, read about it somewhere, seen it on TV, heard it mentioned…He still wouldn’t have had to include H.E.Bates.

The General Introduction, by the way, is a really thought provoking read – in relation to Britishness, and Blockheadedness (what Doctor Johnson said we must be suffering from if we wrote for any other reason than money), and un-blockheadeness, and competitions, and so on.  It might be the singer, not the song, but where stories are concerned, we’re the ones who are singing from the score of the printed page, so it might well be the story, not the storyteller….And you are almost certain to find some that you will be think of as gems in there, among the authors, among the stories.

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